Identity Studies in Service of a Classical Education


A classical education should help students to see how their many identities can and should be integrated according to right reason so that they can develop those life-giving friendships necessary for a full and fulfilling life, most importantly, of course, their friendship with God.

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In recent months, there has been much discussion at my school, Providence College, and elsewhere, about the place of so-called identity studies in a classical liberal arts education. Some have argued that disciplines such as Black Studies, Asian Studies, and Women’s Studies are rooted in a secular political ideology and contemporary gender theory that is incompatible with a classical worldview.

I respectfully disagree. Using principles borrowed from the thought of my angelic Dominican brother, St. Thomas Aquinas, I propose that identity studies, properly understood, can serve the important role of interrogating passively acquired and potentially harmful habituations of the human soul. As such, there is a legitimate place for these fields of inquiry in a robust and classical curriculum that emphasizes truth, beauty, virtue, and vice. However, the challenge remains to properly order these courses of study so that they serve rather than undermine the integration of the human person necessary for living an excellent life.

The Real Effects of Marginalization and Privilege

Though I do not really talk about it much, I experienced what I now know was racial discrimination as an undergraduate. I was made to feel small, to think that I was not worthwhile, and to question my own abilities, because I was an Asian male. Over and over again, a professor used racial stereotypes to tell me that I could never become a scientist. I can still remember hyperventilating and trembling whenever I heard her footsteps walking down the hall as she approached the lab. My roommate and I spent many Friday evenings in the dining hall, envisioning ingenious methods of killing my research supervisor. For the first time in my life, I experienced rage. Sadly, at that time, I had not yet met the Lord. I should have been praying for her instead.

Nonetheless, from that experience, I now see that racial discrimination—indeed any experience of marginalization or of privilege—habituates a soul, to use St. Thomas’s Aristotelian language. Over the course of that long, seemingly unending fall semester, my mentor’s unjust behavior changed me. Until then, I did not know that individuals could be treated differently because of their ethnic background and the color of their skin. And unfortunately, for a while, it made me suspicious of the other white professors I encountered at the university. The experience altered my intellect, my will, and most importantly, my inclinations toward and away from things around me. Marginalization is passive habituation in the same way that St. Thomas argues that growing up in a single-parent household passively habituates the child in a harmful way. Privilege too is a habituation.

But if my analysis of my own experience is accurate, then individuals who have experienced marginalization, especially for long and extended periods of time, will have passively acquired non-volitional habituations that make them see, experience, and respond to their surroundings in a very different way from those who have not experienced those same struggles. This would explain the often heard—and, for some, controversial—claim that whites and non-whites inhabit different worlds: individuals who have not experienced racial marginalization in a white-majority society are habituated in a different way from those who have. In fact, they would be habituated by their experience of privilege. Whites and non-whites experience and react to the same world differently.

This should not be controversial. As St. Thomas, following in the footsteps of Aristotle and Cicero, pointed out, our habituations become like a “second nature” that shapes who we are, what we do, and even what we feel. We all implicitly know that this is true when we acknowledge that habituation can radically alter and change the way we think, feel, and choose. Just ask anyone struggling with an addiction.

With respect to habituation, St. Thomas distinguishes between a specific nature and an individual nature. I propose that there is also something that we can call, analogously, a cultural or a social nature. Culture habituates us and shapes the way that we, as distinct peoples, living in distinct communities with distinct social practices, experience and respond to the world. Culture gives us distinct second natures. Again, this should not be controversial. Movies like Lost in Translation depict quite well how foreigners can get lost in an alien culture because they are habituated to think, feel, and act so differently from their hosts.

For the same reasons, I submit that we should expect that white culture—some have called it white privilege, because it is a culture that is inherently beneficial for whites in often unacknowledged ways—will habituate the hearts and minds of white citizens in a distinct way; it will habituate non-whites, too, but differently. In my view, therefore, the use of racial terms, such as “whiteness,” “blackness,” and in my case “brownness,” should not be controversial; they importantly refer to distinct cultural habituations of the human soul.

This account of cultural habituation also explains so-called microaggressions, which are subtle comments or actions directed at a minority or non-dominant group, often unintentionally, that reinforce the minority stereotype. According to St. Thomas, habituated individuals will be more or less sensitive to, and more or less able to respond to, certain realities as compared to those not similarly habituated. The adult who was bitten by a dog when he was a toddler can become wary of all dogs, even the most tame and friendly of pooches, for the rest of his life. In fact, his behavior may appear unreasonable to the adult who had numerous canine pets growing up and who never was similarly habituated.

One of my black colleagues grew up in a cultural ghetto where she was told by everyone—her parents, her teachers, and her peers—that she was “not-white,” and as such, “not-as-good.” She was made to feel small and insignificant because of her race. After years of this habituation, she is now very sensitive to any perceived microaggressions, especially from our white coworkers, that may suggest that she is an outsider. These stereotypical comments are difficult for my black colleague to hear because she has been habituated by racial marginalization. In a sense, she is traumatized. Like the adult who had been bitten by a dog so long ago who reacts violently to the approach of a gentle beagle, she lashes out in rage at any suggestion, even unintentional ones, that she has no legitimate place in our college community.

The Legitimate Place of Identity Studies

Returning to the primary question of this essay, if my account of how marginalization habituates the soul is true, then there should be a place for identity studies in a classical curriculum. One of the goals of a genuine liberal education is to help students to understand and to discover their own virtues and vices so that they can flourish and live full, genuinely human lives. A liberal education should also help them to recognize, to support, and if needed, to challenge the virtues and vices of others, for the sake of the common good.

However, if there is a place for the study of virtue and vice in a classical liberal education—virtues and vices are themselves habituations—then there should also be a place in the same curriculum for identity studies that uncover how diverse experiences of marginalization or privilege passively habituate the soul. In my view, blackness, whiteness, maleness, and femaleness habituate the human heart like courage, lust, and love do. The latter should be studied for the sake of self-understanding and self-government, and so should the former.

Hence, in one of my moral theology courses, I teach my undergraduates to identify the virtues and the vices of their millennial generation so that they can grow in knowledge of their own actions and the actions of their peers, both good and evil. In my mind, this is the appropriate end for identity studies.

Identity Studies in the Service of Integration and Self-Gift

Several challenges remain. First, identity studies as they are currently pursued in the academy make no attempt to bring the cultural habituations that are the objects of their inquiry into dialogue with the other habituations of the human heart. In contrast, identity studies undertaken within a classical curriculum should acknowledge that all the habituations of the human person are linked, so that they can help individuals who are black, brown, or white, or male or female, to understand how their experiences of living either in the minority or in the majority have made them more or less capable of acquiring and actualizing the range of intellectual and moral virtues needed to attain the human good.

Consider the following: As my esteemed colleague and friend, Anthony Esolen, has so eloquently pointed out in a recent article at Public Discourse, we become ourselves when we give ourselves away. However, as a priest, I have discovered from my pastoral conversations that experiences of marginalization can hinder precisely this giving away of self because they have passively distorted a student’s perception of the receiving and giving of love. Rage makes charity difficult. Rightly understood, identity studies can help students understand why they and others see and feel the world in the way that they do. We cannot give ourselves away to one another if we do not know who we are or who the other is.

Next, identity studies are for the most part often undertaken today apart from any account of what constitutes human excellence. Given the postmodern claim that there is no authentic human good besides the fulfillment of an individual’s subjective desires, this should not be surprising. However, within a classical curriculum, there should be an attempt to determine how particular cultural habituations promote or hinder human flourishing. For one, I have wondered why some ethnic communities are more resilient against marginalization than others. Are there distinctive virtues in a resilient ethnic community that immunize its members against the devastating effects of self-doubt and self-loathing that marginalization can bring? In my case, I know that the love and affirmation I received from my parents buffered me from the belittling comments of my undergraduate research supervisor. I imagine that someone without that family background could have been more detrimentally habituated than I had been. Nonetheless, this raises the question of which individual and communal virtues and vices make particular experiences of marginalization or privilege more or less open to authentic human flourishing.

Finally, in my view, identity studies as they are taught today do not acknowledge that one’s personal identity is constituted by a broad diversity of identities that need to be properly integrated so that the individual can live a rich individual and social life. I am a man, a son, a brother, a Christian, a friar preacher, a priest, a Filipino, an American, a professor, a scientist, and a theologian, just to name some of my many identities. It is not clear why my being male or Filipino should define my identity in a way that my being a son or a Christian or a priest should not.  And yet, as I see it, many identity studies today seem to presuppose that being female, or being black, or being poor, or being “victimized” in some way, has privileged status in determining one’s identity. They tend toward a reductionism that fails to acknowledge the incredible complexity of each person who has lived a diverse number of experiences in life. Inevitably, students are so encouraged to particularize themselves in opposition to the “other,” the “enemy,” or even more problematically, to the “oppressor,” that they can, and often do, lose sight of the truth that they also have many more identities from a shared common human experience of life and death, success and failure, joy and sorrow, that can unite rather than divide.

Rightly understood, therefore, identity studies within a classical curriculum should help students to integrate all their identities so that they can flourish not only as individuals, but also as citizens of a polity held together by a common good. To put it another way, a classical education should help students to see how their many identities can and should be integrated according to right reason so that they can develop those life-giving friendships necessary for a full and fulfilling life, most importantly, of course, their friendship with God.

Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., Ph.D., S.T.D., is a professor of biology and of theology at Providence College.

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